Are biofuels the future of air travel?

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The Independent Online

Boeing and Virgin give their views on this potential travel revolution.

There are few more contentious subjects at the moment than the future of biofuels. The Government is bringing in a flagship environmental policy to convert at least 2.5 per cent of all petrol and diesel sold in the UK to biofuel. Aid groups are campaigning to stop biofuel crops being grown on cleared virgin forest or farmland important to stave off a feared, impending global food shortage. So, no wonder that it’s a topic that has dominated so many media pages. As a result, we spoke to aviation giant Boeing and global-mover Virgin – who have collaborated on a biofuel project – to get their views on the subject.

Point of views

Nick West, UK communications director at Boeing UK

First-generation biofuels are made from the sugars, starches, oils or fats of conventional agricultural products, with corn and soybeans good examples of the sources used to produce first-generation fuels, such as ethanol.

Second-generation biofuel sources are exponentially more efficient and sustainable sources of energy than their first-generation counterparts, requiring a smaller surface area and less fertiliser and water resources. Generally these are non-food crops, with examples being algae, babassu (a Brazilian tree with a high-oil-yield nut), halophytes (salt marsh grasses), jatropha (a tropical plant with a high-oilyield nut) and switchgrass (a hardy, drought-resistant grass). Specially produced algae could produce up to 150 times more oil per acre than soybeans and can be grown with polluted or salt water.

Boeing’s participation in the testing of second generation biofuels for aviation is a continuation of a decade-long effort to reduce consumption of traditional fuels. Boeing has already made major advances in reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions; the 787, for example, will produce 20 per cent less CO2 than the 767 it succeeds. The primary benefit of using biofuels in a commercial aircraft is their ability to reduce greenhouse gases throughout their entire life cycle.

Biofuels must address key requirements of not freezing at cold temperatures, not forming deposits in the high temperature portions of an aeroplane’s engine and having high energy content. Current biodiesel-type fuels cannot meet these challenges, another reason why these new, second-generation processing methods are being developed.

Boeing is working with a number of organisations, including one that the company helped establish in the United States called the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative (CAAFI), a group consisting of representatives from across the aviation and fuel industry.

Biofuels are being developed to meet the current jet-fuel specification as a “drop in”, which means they can be used in place of current jet fuels with no change or modifications to the engine. Working with others in the industry – including Virgin Atlantic Airways in the UK – Boeing has already proven that it is possible to fly a commercial aircraft using a biofuel blend, without having to make any modifications.

There are many hurdles which need to be overcome before this happens, but Boeing’s hope is that commercial distribution can allow sustainable biofuel to be used by all commercial aircraft on a routine basis in five to seven years.

Siân Foster, Corporate sustainability and responsibility manager at Virgin Atlantic Airways

On 24 February, Virgin Atlantic became the world’s first airline to operate a commercial aircraft on a biofuel blend. The Boeing 747 flew a short flight from London to Amsterdam, using a biofuel and kerosene mix in one of its four engines.

While the biofuel used for the demo flight probably isn’t what will be used by the industry long-term, Virgin wanted to make a visible demonstration of its commitment to find a sustainable alternative to traditional crude-oil industry that it is possible to replicate the very strict performance characteristics of normal jet fuel (such as a -47°C freeze point, so it can cope at altitude and a high energy density) using a combination of coconut oil and babassu nut oil, both sustainably cultivated crops.

Within the next decade Virgin expects to see a significant contribution from second-generation biofuels – made from sustainable second generation feedstocks such as algae, or using waste biomass such as wood chips – towards aviation’s fuel needs. With the aviation industry soon to be included in the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme and paying for its carbon emissions going forwards, it makes great business sense to investigate low carbon alternatives to replace existing technologies.

We all take the social and economic benefits of aviation for granted – we live in an increasingly internationalised society with friends and family all over the world – and aviation plays a crucial role in economic growth, particularly in the developing world. But we need to make sure that we also take into account the climate change impacts of aviation, which is a significant contributor to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Biofuels alone are not the answer. However, as new aircraft technologies can take a couple of decades or more to be rolled out across airlines’ fleets, a “drop in”, low-carbon alternative to traditional kerosene, requiring no technical modifications to aircraft or fuel systems, can provide a really useful short- to medium-term opportunity for the industry to reduce its emissions.

Are biofuels the answer, or do they create more environmental problems than they solve? We want to hear your thoughts – give your comments below.